South Orange: A Radio Interview with Peter Smith
Interviewer: Now Mr. Smith, will you tell us something about South Orange Village.
Peter Smith: The Village will be 70 years old next Saturday, for, on March 25, 1869, it was incorporated. This was ratified at a special election, held May 4, 1869. It was found that additional legislation was needed, and there was an amended charter granted April 4, 1872, and further supplements in ’73 and ’75. A constitutional amendment was adopted in 1875, which prevented special legislation, and, since then, the Charter has only been varied by general laws relating to Villages and all other classes of municipalities.
I: Before the village was incorporated what was it a part of?
S: The Township of South Orange, which included the Village of South Orange, Maplewood and the Borough of Vailsburg. South Orange Township had been a part of Orange Township, which had separated from the Township of Newark in 1806. If we consider Essex County as a family, the Village would be the great-great-grandchild of Newark. The Village has always recognized its parentage, and cooperates with Newark, Maplewood and Orange in worthwhile endeavors.
I: I know there is no limitation on the population in a Village, but I would like to know why South Orange continues that form of government, especially when estimates indicate a present population of about 16,000. Why does it do so?
S: Only because its people desired it. The word “Village” instinctively calls to mind a picture of a cluster of homes, centering around a crossroads, its streets shaded by overhanging trees, a church with its spire pointing heavenwards, a group of stores, and the home of the government, a school house with children playing in the yard, a green, and a tavern. --- If you come with me to the Village center, you will find all of these there now. Of course, times have added a garage, in place of the blacksmith shop, which incidentally was there to a few years ago, and a movie in place of the skating rink, which now has come back to another location, and white lines for parking, instead of the hitching post, also a service station for the watering trough, but the spirit of simple good home life is still there, thank God, and, because it is, and because South Orange has a very democratic and responsive form, it continues as a Village.
I: Apart from that sentimental viewpoint, are there to your view any other advantages?
S: Yes. Formerly, no money could be spent by a Township, unless it had first received a majority vote of the people. Under our form of Village government, the responsibility of raising money for governmental purposes, was placed in the hands of the Board of Trustees, and was presented in ordinance form, and known as the Tax Ordinance. Then, too, under our Charter, almost every position comes under civil service, and so we are able to provide places for competent career men, for such important places as Clerk, Treasurer, Engineer, etc., who are not concerned in any way with politics. Under the Village form, we have the powers granted by our own Charter and also those under the Home Rule Legislation. There are times when special legislation may be required by us. Since it would not affect others, we can secure its enactment more easily. Oft’times legislation is enacted that affects whole groups of municipal governments, such as cities, towns, borough, etc. Since we are a Village, it does not apply to us. The Village is unique in many ways, and there is no reason why it should not have a distinct form of Government.
I: That last statement sounds as if South Orange wanted to be different, or to stand off from other municipalities, or the be high-hat, and go alone along its own path, and not to cooperate or to be interested in other places. Is that so?
S: Positively “No”.- While South Orange has the second highest income tax returns, and, according to “Sales Management” has the highest buying power in the State, it is not high-hat or smug or snooty in any way. You know, from your own excellent League, that we are earnest and sincere in our efforts to work with any other government. While the average wealth in the Village is high, its citizens have always been most eager to help the less fortunate. As I stated in the beginning, our people like the Village form of government, but we never comment on any other form or make unfair comparisons. While we are naturally proud of our position, it is not a vain pride, for we realize fully how good God has been to us, and we try sincerely to do our best, without boasting or ostentation. As to being high-hat, there are probably more people in South Orange who wear no hats at all, thank in most places. Community service, character and culture are better assets in the Village than money.
I: You say South Orange is willing to cooperate. Can you give us some actual examples?
S: Our greatest piece of cooperation is our school system, which is operated jointly with Maplewood. We are in the Joint Meeting, for sanitary sewer treatment. We join with the other Oranges and Maplewood in the Milk Inspection Bureau, in the G. U. Clinic. In Company with West Orange and Orange, we use the Record Ambulance. We contract with Newark for radio service, for police and street departments. We fully cooperate with the County in all their services. We place old folks, on a paid basis, both at Ivy Hill and at the Orange Home. Our President joins with the other chief executives in making proclamations relative to fire prevention, clean up, disaster relief, etc. We follow Newark in Daylight Saving. Space for water pipes and other services for nearby municipalities and utility companies is provided in our streets. Common boundary markers are maintained and border line cases on assessments, sanitary and storm water drains are handled in a neighborly way. We join in the National health, safety, fire and other contests. Our fireworks display is enjoyed by many. The Post Office also serves Maplewood. We operate a U.S. Weather Bureau station and cooperate with the nearby C.C.C. Camp. We are members of the County Planning group, and of the Rahway River Flood Control Commission. We provide a sanitary sewer for the reservation. South Orange has joined with others in connection with various tax litigations. The Village holds membership in the Community Safety Council, and is always willing to send representatives to conferences of mutual interest. It cooperates in transportation matters. Incidentally, I believe joint services hold more possibility for reduction in cost of government than any other suggestion that I have recently heard.
I: All right, you have convinced me that you do cooperate from a government standpoint, but how about social welfare matters? Are your residents as broadminded in these?
S: Yes, we generously and willingly participate in the financial and welfare affairs of the Welfare Federation, the Social Welfare Council, the Americanization Council, Red Cross, etc. If fact, we have won the Red Cross flag for the past two years, for the best results in their campaign. We make contributions to the nearby hospitals and, either as a government or as citizens help almost every good effort undertaken. We have several representatives in our local Council for Youth, on the Local Assistance Boards’ Conference, etc. Willing cooperation is extended to the Garden Club, the Community House, the church, etc. The Village stands out, rather than off in such matters, and here again the government simply follows the leads of its citizens. We are connected, by Board membership, etc., with almost every organization doing good work.
I: It seems to me your officials must be unusually busy. I understand they are not paid. How can you get them to give their time and effort and money to the Village?
S: Very largely because of the tradition and background and also because of the cooperation and courtesy they receive from Village Residents. Since we do not have partisan politics in local affairs, there are no troublesome campaigns, no contributions, but few tickets to be purchased, and, because of Civil Service, no problems of patronage. Our Village President and six trustees are average residents, who do not pose as experts, but who are honestly interested in good government; they are helped by a fine group of public employees, most of whom have long experience. While complaints are at times received, they are made in good faith, by reasonable folks, who seem to appreciate our unpaid service. If we don’t satisfy the method of removal is easily available.
I: How much personal responsibility does each Trustee have?
S: He is usually the head of several important committees, but he does not have sole authority, as in the Commission form of government. There are three members in each Committee, and, while the Chairman can and does decide minor matters, he gets the consent of his Committee on important ones. He then submits the topic to the whole Board, for decision. This keeps the Trustees advised on general matters. Since the Village President and Trustees are all from different fields in their own work, it makes their various experiences and skills available. These submissions of matters occur at the informal conference of the Board, a week in advance of the regular monthly public meeting. Oft’times citizens wonder at the unanimous concurrence by the Board at these public meetings. This is largely due to the fact that the matter has been fully talked over and a decision reached in the conference. If a citizen were to attend such conferences, he would find many different opinions expressed, and quite a few arguments. Important permanent officials attend these informal meetings, and are ready to supply, or later secure desired data. The Board members are not bound by the decision of the majority, and, on very rare occasions, a member votes contrary to the majority. Our minutes are printed in full, in the local weekly paper, with all votes recorded, so that any citizen may check, at any time, on a Trustee’s action. The more active Committees require about one night’s work each week and part of a day. The Trustee is given a supply of stationary and stamped envelopes, but furnishes his own stenographic service, telephone, etc., so that it costs him yearly a very large out-of-pocket expense.
I: Mr. Smith, a few minutes ago you referred to the fact that you do not have partisan politics in connection with your local affairs. This leads to a rather logical question. Just what method is pursued in selecting the members of your governing body?
S: A group called the Citizens Party League holds an annual convention, at which their Nominating Committee reports the names of persons suggested as Trustees and each second year a name for Village President. The League is non-partisan, and, for a number of years, their selections have been elected. The Village election is held apart from any other and so does not conflict with national or state affairs. The League has a small membership of interested citizens. After a Trustee is elected, it does not try in any way to influence his actions. It usually adopts a platform against consolidation, but favors neighborly relations. The election is a very simple one, and opposition to the choices of the League would be easy to organize, but our citizens seem to be satisfied and usually none develops.